Life after gay marriage: what happens now that gay and lesbian couples can get hitched in San Francisco and Massachusetts? The political backlash has already begun, but the battle for equality may be won in the newlyweds' everyday lives.
In 20 years or so, the spring of 2004 will seem just a momentous blip in the history of America's progress toward equal rights. It all started, history will tell us, in 2003, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws. In November the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that same-sex couples had an equal right to marry under that state's constitution. On February 4 the court reaffirmed its decision, asserting that civil unions or domestic partnerships were not enough, that separate did not mean equal for gay people.
By then, the trickle of historic events around same-sex marriage trod become a deluge. The president had come out repeatedly against equal rights; legislators in Massachusetts and numerous other states rushed to debate whether the tide of equality could be stopped. At press time, that debate remained unresolved in Massachusetts, where in February legislators voted down three constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage but scheduled additional debate for March--although no legislative action can delay the court's order to allow same-sex weddings no later than mid May.
History books will no doubt focus on more upbeat moments, such as snapshots showing beaming gay men and lesbians signing marriage licenses in San Francisco on February 12--where new mayor Gavin Newsom ordered that the city allow same-sex unions despite a California statute outlawing gay marriage--and in Massachusetts on May 17--the first day in U.S. history that same-sex marriages will be fully and unquestionably legal. Our kids will study these days in school.
Yes, they'll also read about the bizarre plan by the right-wing chunk of the country to stop gay marriage at any cost: to amend state constitutions to deny marriage to certain citizens, to target for defeat politicians who favor equality, to rally again and again at churches and state capitols across the country to shout their religious beliefs and pro-discrimination slogans. These are the Anita Bryants of the new millennium, the people heartened by President George W. Bush's $1.5 billion plan to promote marriage for straight people.
The history of American equality is not likely to be kind to the people pressuring Washington lawmakers to add a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban access to marriage for gays and lesbians. The amendment would be the first ever to mandate discrimination against one group of Americans and the first constitutional decree of second-class citizenship since the end of slavery. Nor will history make heroes of the Republicans who rant against gay marriage to fire up the party's conservative base, nor even of Democrats like presidential front-runner John Kerry, who asserts his absolute opposition to equal marriage rights while insisting he favors equality for gays.
"I think we will look back--in not that many years front now--and will marvel at what people were saying," says Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. "Every single time a majority of people decide that someone is different because of race, religion, skin color, or who they love, they say they're not worthy of equal rights. Every time we've looked back with horror on the fact that one group of people had treated another group of people this way."
On a more personal level, gay and lesbian couples will remember the exact moment they decided to tie the knot. After years of gay marriage existing only as a subject for political debate, it actually arrives as an extremely personal conversation between two people about planning a ceremony in Boston or P-town. After bruising battles in Hawaii in the mid 1990s and Vermont later in the decade (culminating in the nation's first civil union law in 2000), gay men and lesbians are finally on the cusp of achieving the security that married couples take for granted. They are finally going to have to settle the issue of who walks whom down the aisle, if they want a band or a DJ, and if Crate and Barrel is a good place to register for gifts.
Provincetown residents Bob Anderson, 46, and Michael MacIntyre, 48, will hold their ceremony during Memorial Day weekend at the historic inn they own. They've been together for 12 years, which "is probably a lot longer than some marriages, definitely longer than Britney Spears's wedding," quips Anderson. Next year they plan to allow guests to book the inn for weekend weddings.
Other couples--such as Christopher Sieber, who plays a fictional gay dad on the ABC sitcom It's All Relative, and his real-life partner, Kevin Burrows--will celebrate the arrival of equal marriage rights without heading immediately to Massachusetts. Not that they don't think marriage is a great step toward equality--and a boost to the economy. "On Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey went off about gay marriage and how much it's going to boost the economy because they're going to pump millions into these weddings," Burrows says with a laugh. "She said, 'How call you not vote for Kerry, when the economy is just going to be saved by that alone?'"
Burrows and Sieber met at a mutual friend's birthday party a few years back. They became friends while both were in The Lion King on Broadway and started dating when Burrows left to play a part in The Full Monty.
Three years into the relationship, the pair are busy commuting cross-country to see each other. Sieber--who tapes episodes of It's All Relative in Los Angeles--is grateful for a flexible schedule that allows him one week off after every three weeks of work. But does that leave them enough time for a marriage ceremony? "I think we've had more of a discussion about where we'll have the marriage than actually the ceremony itself," Burrows says. "We have a great house that's on an island in New Jersey that would just be the most fabulous place for a ceremony that you could imagine."
Adds Sieber, who terms the couple's relationship easy and comfortable: "For everyone who knows us, it would be kind of redundant to get married at this point. We're not going anywhere. We're not looking anywhere else. We're done."
Burrows and Sieber marvel at the speed with which gay marriage is progressing through the country. It seems like only yesterday they heard the news that the Supreme Court had overturned all remaining sodomy laws. "We were on an Atlantis Cruise," Sieber remembers. "Here we were at sea on the bigger, gayest cruise ever and they got on the public address system on the boat and they said, 'Lady and gentlemen ...' and announced that sodomy laws had been abolished across the nation. You'd never heard so much screaming. It was very funny."
The main benefit they see to getting married is ensuring the legal and financial protections afforded everyone else, says Burrows, who is in the process of getting his will in order. Adds Sieber: "Marriage is all about getting certain rights in everyday life that straight couples who are in terrible marriages still have. Some [straight] people have these crappy marriages, yet there are thousands of gay men and women out there who love each other desperately and they've been together for decades and they don't have those stone rights."
And don't get him started on divorce. "I think we have a responsibility that if you're going to get married, you should mean it, because the divorce rate in this country is insane," he says. "Gay people have never been able to make this kind of commitment to somebody. I think we'll have a better track record."
By 2024 perhaps most gays and lesbians will have forgotten about the bitter conflagration that the Massachusetts ruling is currently fueling across the country. Religious conservatives have turned gay marriage into their most unifying issue--and the biggest boon for fund-raising--in years. In Massachusetts, for example, gay-marriage opponents have formed the intentionally misnamed Coalition for Marriage, while supporters have countered with the formation of Mass Equality, with the slogan "No discrimination in the constitution."
So-called defense of marriage movements have rocked statehouses from Rhode Island to Georgia to Utah. On February 6, Ohio's Republican governor, Robert Taft, signed into law one of the nation's strictest same-sex marriage bans, forbidding even health benefits for state employees' unmarried partners.
"This backlash was inevitable," says Michael Adams, director of education and public affairs for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in New York City. "The reality is that if we're a civil rights movement--and what we're trying to do is to win equality for ourselves and our relationships--you get to a tipping point where you're getting close to winning. We've gotten to that point. It's a great thing, but we also have to deal with the backlash."
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, compares the out rage over gay marriage to the cases against interracial marriage, which started to crumble in the 1940s. Back then, protesters told courts they had no business redefining traditional marriage, that public opinion sided with the ban, that interracial couples were inferior, and that allowing such marriages would create a legal quagmire.
"It wasn't until 1948 that the California supreme court became the first to say that race discrimination [in marriage] was wrong," Wolfson says. "It then took another 19 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike it down. During those 19 years, some states moved in the direction of equality while other states discriminated until the very end."
Wolfson said the right wing's campaign is a last-ditch effort: "Momentum is on our side, and they're going to throw everything at us to try and stop that, so we have to engage this in all 50 states."
For gay and lesbian couples who marry in Massachusetts, the ceremony will be the easy part. They will then return home to face changing even the most mundane realities of their daily life, from filling out health club memberships to ordering new checks, from seeking employee benefits to updating emergency contact information at their children's schools. And as they reorganize their lives, the people around them will gradually adjust to the reality of same-sex couples who are legally married.
Whether they live inside or outside of Massachusetts, "I think the best advice for people who get married and come back is to operate as one unit," says Matt Coles, director of the the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian, Gay Rights, and AIDS projects. "Ask your employer, business, church, and neighbors to recognize the marriage, and I think a lot of people will."
The federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, may prohibit gay and lesbian couples from receiving an estimated 1,049 benefits that federal laws automatically give to married couples, but it has no power in the private sector, where real social change often takes hold. For example, Coles says, "already an increasing number of private companies are quietly offering equal insurance benefits to gay and lesbian couples who were married in Canada--same-sex weddings are currently legally in Ontario and British Columbia--without any public changes in their employment policies.
This is the quiet revolution that the far right most fears: daily acceptance of gay couples as equal to straight couples. William Woods--a founder of Hawaii's gay marriage movement more than a decade ago--and his partner, Lance Bateman, were married in the Canadian city of Vancouver in August 2003. Woods remembers bracing for people back home to protest their marriage, but the couple experienced the opposite. They received co-memberships to the AARP without hassle, sign one immigration customs form for trips abroad, and were offered the option to get joint health insurance. They couldn't legally get the same kind of property ownership rights afforded to married couples, but, Woods says, "the title and insurance companies really tried to facilitate us being recognized as married."
Woods knows firsthand how nasty the fight over equal marriage rights will be for same-sex couples in the coming year. In the 1980s he began trying to convince a state court that gays and lesbians had the legal right to marry. In May 1993, Hawaii's supreme court ruled that denying marriage licenses to gay couples was unconstitutional unless the state could prove a compelling public interest. That sparked fierce protests and a bitter public relations battle from both sides. The legislature panicked and passed a constitutional amendment, later approved in a statewide referendum, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The Hawaii supreme court, then declared Woods's lawsuit dead; the state would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. No gay or lesbian couple has ever been legally married in Hawaii.
What worries a number of gay rights groups is that out-of-state couples will be married in Massachusetts, return home, and file a barrage of lawsuits to get their unions recognized in their home state. All explosion of such lawsuits could shift public opinion and cause additional lawmakers to support "defense of marriage" acts. The backlash could also have a negative impact oil other legal challenges in which gays and lesbians are seeking equal treatment under adoption laws or rules to punish antigay harassment in schools. "The far right is tired of just throwing grenades at our families, and they are looking to construct nuclear bombs," says David Buckel, a Lambda Legal lawyer. "They need to generate all sorts of anxiety to do that."
Buckel advises gay couples who marry legally to ask for guidance before filing a lawsuit in their home state. "You have to evaluate what the laws look like within that state: What does the court look like? What does the legislature look like? You could win in court and have it ripped away from you. I call it the 100-factor analysis."
But before activists can settle into a methodical, state-by-state battle, the country as a whole must first attend to the national circus that is the 2004 presidential campaign. Same-sex marriage is already a major issue, much to the chagrin of Massachusetts senator Kerry, who is expected to lock up the Democratic nomination for president by some time in March. While Kerry opposes equal marriage fights for same-sex couples, he recently told a crowd during a campaign stop: "I believe and have fought for the principle that we should protect the fundamental rights of gay and lesbian couples--from inheritance to health benefits.... I believe the right answer is civil unions."
Nevertheless, the reelection campaign of President Bush is expected to try to link Kerry to the same-sex marriages occurring in his home state, and Bush has already indicated his support for a federal constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage--an amendment that as currently worded could also impose a nationwide ban on civil unions (invalidating those already in existence) and forbid recognition of stone-sex domestic partnerships at any level of government.
"I think the president has misread the lesson from 1992, when he watched his father lose reelection," says Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans. The elder Bush lost to Bill Clinton after a Republican national convention in which rightwing activist Patrick Buchanan called for a cultural war against homosexuals and others. "This race, like most presidential races, is going to get very tight, and if you attempt to get 5 million Christian evangelicals to the polls but you tick off 10 million fair-minded Americans, that's a weird political calculation."
The marriage battle will continue to be fought on many fronts. HRC's national strategy is to fight the Federal Marriage Amendment, block "defense of marriage" acts, and counter continuing attempts in Massachusetts to pass an amendment to negate the same-sex marriage ruling--and a threat from Republican governor Mitt Romney that he'll prevent same-sex marriage licenses from being issued on May 17 any way he can, with or without an amendment, and perhaps in contradiction to his own highest court's direct order. "One of the things that we learned is that we need to build the political support along with the legal strategy," says Seth Kilbourn, national field director for HRC.
Adds HRC's Jacques: "In Ohio we learned that the business community has to be there from day one before [the marriage] issue ever gains a level of momentum. And we have to say to elected officials that this is an issue that hurts business, recruitment, and tourism. This isn't good for the states."
As Jacques speaks to The Advocate, the gay-marriage debate is changing at warp speed. Guerrilla same-sex marriages OK'd by San Francisco's mayor. Hundreds of gay rights supporters and opponents still descending on Boston. New "defense of marriage" bills introduced in different states almost weekly. But through it all, somewhere tuxedos are being rented, dresses are being purchased, and richly frosted cakes are being taste-tested for the big event.
Gays and lesbians should savor all these moments--even the ugly battles over equality inevitable this summer and fall. Twenty years from now, we're going to look back at this whirlwind and it'll seem like a quaint, distant memory.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Mar 16, 2004|
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